(First in a two-part series)
The top official governing high school athletics in Delaware has become one of the nation’s foremost authorities on prep sports.
Kevin Charles, executive director of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association (DIAA), recently completed a one-year term as the 53rd president of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The presidency capped a four-year term on the NFHS board of directors.
The job took him away from Delaware for more than 60 days over the past year. He traveled to Indianapolis; Topeka, Kan.; New Orleans; Denver; Kalispell, Mont.; East Lansing, Mich.; Williamsburg, Va.; Atlantic City, N.J.; San Antonio, Orlando, Fla., and Phoenix to meet with high school athletic officials from other states.
With the demands of his job slowing a bit over the summer, Charles sat down with The News Journal to discuss the top issues facing prep athletics, both nationally and in Delaware.
Did you participate in high school sports?
“I played baseball, and I also wrestled at Dover. Those were my two primary sports. Would have loved to play football, but I grew up on a farm so it just didn’t quite work out with what was going on on the farm. There is a lot of work on the farm in the fall. But today, I think my knees probably thank me for not playing football.”
When you look back, what did you learn from high school athletics?
“I definitely think that one of the biggest things you learn from participating in athletics, or any after-school activity, is you learn self-confidence. You learn to challenge yourself, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But you grow from all of those things if you’re receptive to it.”
Was serving as president of NFHS a goal of yours?
“It wasn’t a goal of mine. It really just kind of happened. In the federation, there are eight sections in the United States and we’re in Section 2. There are seven states and the District of Columbia in Section 2, and we all get to take a turn at serving on the board. So literally, every 32 years someone from Delaware gets to serve on the board. Delaware’s turn came up in 2009, and it was just my good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.
“And then once you are on the board, there are three new members on the board each year, and one of those three is going to be president in their fourth year on the board. I was very fortunate to be the person who got that honor.”
How much did you travel?
“I would say that I was on the road 60 days during the past year. We go to section meetings, and I sit on two other committees. I sit on the sports medicine advisory committee and the summer meeting advisory committee. … There’s a summer meeting of the federation, and a winter meeting and a legal meeting. These are really critical meetings to do the business of the federation, but also to learn. To stay on top of the issues – health and safety, rules, trends in interscholastic sports.”
Nationally, what are some of the most important issues currently facing NFHS?
“Some of the more challenging things are obviously football concussions and the safety of football. There is a lot of discussion now in terms of limiting impact and how do we make the sport safer. Texas has made some big steps in the last year to try to address some of the concerns. And if a football-crazy state like Texas can do it, certainly we can do things like that in Delaware. Things like limiting hitting in practice.
“The biggest thing Texas did was put in a limit on contact – 90 minutes a week of non-game-related contact. They’ve also jumped on board with the heat and acclimatization policy that Delaware already has. They’re also doing more training in terms of coaches’ certification, which is something I’d like to look at here in Delaware.
“They took some major steps for Texas, where football has god-like status in the high schools and 30,000 people attend the Friday night game. That was huge.”
Are concussions becoming an important issue across the board?
“Sure. Not just football, but concussions in general. Making sure students are properly treated and are safe to return to play, and also safe to return to the classroom. That’s an area that has kind of been ignored, because we’ve been focused on return to play. But they also need to return to the classroom, and there are certain procedural steps that need to be taken there. We talk about concussions at every meeting we have, so it’s obviously one of our biggest areas of concern.”
Many parents and students focus on high school athletics as a way to earn a college scholarship. What are your thoughts on that?
“The myth of the college athletic scholarship is just driving parents in too many cases to push children to almost follow a professional athletic model as young as 6 years of age. Kids don’t get to ‘play’ sports. They have to participate on teams and travel and practice and go to sport-specific trainers to develop specific skills.
“We play soccer year-round, we play basketball year-round, we play baseball year-round. And now we’re even talking about playing football year-round. There is a time for kids to become very competitive and work very hard on their athletic skills, but it’s much later in life than 6 years of age. The damage being done to children physically, emotionally, mentally …
“There are college athletic scholarships, but they’re not as prevalent as we think. For example, men’s Division I soccer, this information is about three years old, but there were 199 men’s programs nationwide. They were each permitted to have 9.9 scholarships. Round that up, that’s 2,000 scholarships. And that’s if fully funded. For years, the University of Delaware only had one scholarship for soccer. They were allowed 9.9, but they had one.
“And then you have to divide that by four, maybe five, because kids are in school that long. If you divide that by four, that’s 500 scholarships per year nationwide. And soccer is an international market. Many of the Division I soccer players aren’t coming from the United States.
What are the odds of earning a college athletic scholarship?
“Most high school athletes are not going to play college sports. When I say most, we’re talking 90 to 95 percent will not play college sports. That’s just the way it is. And then, the percentage that will get a significant college athletic scholarship might be less than 1 percent in some sports, to 2 percent in other sports. The odds are not in your favor.
“But if you get a solid academic background while you’re in high school – and that’s why we go to school, for academics, not athletics – there are $30 in academic scholarships for every $1 in athletic scholarships. That’s what you shoot for. If the rest of it comes, great.”
Are you concerned about any other trends in high school sports?
“I’m concerned about the increased dependence on non-educator coaches. In education-based athletics, that playing field is a classroom and those coaches are teachers. We are teaching life lessons. We are not like AAU or ASA or any of these things. We’re about educating children. That’s what we do. If we’re not doing that in an education-based sports program, then we are totally missing the boat.
“That is not to say that non-educator coaches can’t do that. They can, and we have many wonderful non-educator coaches. But there is a growing dependence on non-educator coaches.”
Now that your term is over, what will your role be with NFHS?
“We don’t have a past-president role in the federation. So basically, I’m now off the board and I’m no longer president of the organization. But I’m still one of the 51 delegates in the national council.”
How long would you like to continue to serve DIAA?
“I love high school sports, and that’s what I do for a living. How much better can it get? And I get to come to work with two of my closest friends [coordinator of officials Tommie Neubauer and secretary Tina Hurley] every day. For me, it’s a great job.
“To directly answer your question, I’m 59 and I’ve always looked at 62 as that age where I’m going to make a decision. If things aren’t going well and I feel ready, I might retire at 62. But if I’m still loving what I’m doing, I don’t know. I want to have something to do, and this is pretty good.”